Chilmark selectmen digest dinner boat request

Menemsha Harbor is one of the centers of Martha's Vineyard's commercial fishing activity. — File photo by Susan Safford

The resurgent Chilmark harbor advisory committee met Tuesday with selectmen to sort some things out — chief among them a proposal by a well-known lobster fisherman to run charter dinner cruises out of Menemsha Harbor.

The meeting, attended by several commercial fishermen, was often emotional, boisterous, and at times raunchy, a marked departure from regular selectmen’s meetings where decorum is the norm.

In recent years, the harbor advisory committee rarely set agendas or posted meetings. But following the devastating Menemsha boathouse fire in July 2010, there has been a push to have the harbor advisory group meet regularly and take a more active role in the regulation of the harbor.

The committee’s attempt to balance diverse interests was obvious when Paul McDonald, the captain of the lobster boat Shearwater, proposed to run a charter lobster dinner cruise out of the harbor.

In a letter sent May 9, he explained that the lobster industry in Southern New England is in steep decline. “The abundance of lobsters, shellfish disease, price of fuel and bait, cost of insurance has made it significantly less profitable,” he said.

Mr. McDonald is proposing a dinner cruise that would take up to six passengers who would sail out and haul some pots. He would then anchor at sea and serve a menu of prepared foods and the fresh lobster that were caught during the cruise.

Mr. McDonald said he passed a food serving course, has the proper insurance, and that the dinner cruise complies with Coast Guard regulations. He said he planned to do a few charter cruises a week, while continuing as a full-time lobster fisherman.

At their regular meeting on May 15, selectmen expressed concerns about allowing commercial fishermen to operate a charter dinner cruise.

At the joint meeting Tuesday, Mr. McDonald said the dinner cruise will have an educational component and teach people firsthand about the commercial fishing industry in Menemsha. He pleaded with the harbor advisory committee and selectmen to consider his plan.

“If I just had two charters a week I could pay for my fuel – I paid fourteen thousand for fuel last year,” he said. “I don’t want to cause any problems, I just want to keep my business afloat. If I don’t do something now, I don’t know how much longer I can go on.”

“The problem is that you are moving the charter business into the rest of the commercial zone, and then it won’t be just you, it will be two or three other guys who want to do it,” said Jonathan Mayhew, chairman of the selectmen and a commercial fisherman.

“The solution to your situation wouldn’t make a great deal of difference one way or the other, but if it works — and it probably will — you will want to take four [dinner cruises] instead of two a week,” committee member, town moderator, and former fish dealer Everett Poole said. “And then seven other guys from one place or another will want to do the same thing.”

Mr. McDonald said he felt he was being unfairly singled out. He said other charter boats — including those not licensed by the town — pick up and drop off customers in the harbor all the time in the summer.

Menemsha sets aside reserved dock space for charter fishermen.

“I am just saying I want to supplement my business and keep me working and keep the money in Menemsha,” he said. “It kills me to see other boats picking up and dropping off all day, and I am being shut down here. If they aren’t allowed to, who is going to enforce that?”

Selectman Bill Rossi cited a petition that has circulated in town insisting that charter boats should be kept out of the commercial dock. Mr. Rossi said it was signed by 67 people, although many in attendance at the meeting had not seen or signed the petition.

Harbormaster Dennis Jason said he sympathized with Mr. McDonald, but said his proposal raised questions about what constitutes a charter cruise. “If he does this once a week or twice a week, is he still a commercial fisherman or is he a charter? He is a clean, conscientious guy, and he runs a clean show… if he needs to supplement his income with his boat, I can’t fault him for that.”

Selectman Warren Doty, leader of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, said that Mr. McDonald should still be considered a commercial fisherman, even if he runs a part-time charter cruise to supplement his income.

Mr. Doty said Mr. McDonald should find another place to drop off and pick up customers – and suggested he talk to one of the licensed charter captains about sharing one of the slips or arranging to pick up customers elsewhere like on the Aquinnah side of the harbor.

Mr. Jason said using a “touch and go” style to pick up customers – essentially using a slip when and if it opens – might also work.

In the end the harbor advisory committee asked Mr. McDonald to return with a new proposal with a different drop-off and pickup area instead of the commercial dock.

The two town boards took a hard line on another proposal by Nick Van Nes to continue his charter cruises out of Menemsha harbor. Mr. Van Ness has operated a sunset charter cruise in his 105-foot sailboat for the past three years.

Mr. Mayhew said selectmen sought an opinion from the harbor advisory committee on Mr. Van Nes’s proposal because of complaints about him soliciting on the beach. “And I was one of those that was solicited, you came up to me on the beach,” Mr. Mayhew said, adding, “I am not a fan of solicitation. I don’t think that is a particularly good idea on our beaches.”

Mr. Van Nes said he tries to be tactful when looking for business. “I am sensitive myself to soliciting and I think that I can tone it down a lot,” he said. “I tried to do it discretely and sometimes depending on the time of day I may have gotten carried away. I wasn’t aware that people were unhappy about it.”

Discussion about solicitation prompted a response from self-proclaimed wharf rat David Larsen, who questioned why town officials were taking up the issue now. “A lot of this stuff has been going on down there for years – and this is the first time I have heard of all these rules,” Mr. Larsen said.

“These rules have existed for a long time and now we are looking to enforce them,” Mr. Mayhew said.

The two boards did not vote on Mr. Van Nes’s proposal, but expressly forbade him from soliciting on the beach anymore.